Mark Levinson No.37 CD transport & No.36S D/A converter Page 3
The top end of the 37/36S is as airy and extended as you could hope for from CD. (I'm beginning to wonder how much more performance we can wring from the 5" silver disc short of an entirely new format—like DVD for audio.) The top end of the 37/36S is neither sweet nor bright, but just...there. Its best qualities were more evident through the Energy Veritas v2.8s than through the Sony SS-M9 speakers, but even the latter made clear the level of performance I was hearing.
At the bottom end the Levinsons were tight, punchy, and detailed. The Patriot Games soundtrack (RCA 66051-2) remains my reference for low-frequency weight and attack, and the 37/36S delivered a sledgehammer performance. But neither was more naturally mastered material slighted, whether organ, double bass, or bass drum. With the Levinsons in the chain, any bass limitations in your system will not be the fault of the CD playback equipment.
All of my above observations were made with a coaxial digital link between the 37 and the 36S, and unbalanced interconnects between the 36S and the Rowland Consummate preamp. Madrigal provided me with a set of their new CZ Gel-1 balanced interconnects, however, and I tried them briefly between the No.36S and the Rowland in place of the TARA Labs unbalanced interconnects I'd been using. Considering that the Madrigal interconnects were 1) a half-meter shorter and 2) balanced, the two links sounded remarkably the same. Though the Levinsons did sound slightly more sweet if less tightly detailed, I marginally preferred the TARAs. Based on my previous experiences with balanced operation, I feel that such differences as there were—and I wouldn't dwell on them long—were due more to the cables themselves than to the balanced-vs-single-ended question.
All in the Family
I could say a lot more, but I wouldn't be adding anything significant to the above—performance of this quality simply defuses criticism. Still, up to this point I have treated the Levinson pair as a package. You get one, you get the other. Mom and apple pie. Siskel and Ebert. Bill and Hillary. But inquiring minds want to know: How do the No.37 and No.36S stack up individually?
First I compared the Levinson No.37 with the Levinson No.31.5 reviewed last October by JA (Vol.19 No.10). I used the No.36S as the D/A in both cases. One of the transports was a little more open and airy, with more apparent depth and a little tighter bass. It was the No.37. Yes, the less expensive transport sounded better. To me. The No.31.5 had the more relaxed, easy sound, while the No.37 seemed more tightly wound. But real music also has an undertone of tension, a nervous energy that jumps off each note and propels you on to the next, and it was this quality that was better conveyed by the No.37. Having said that, the differences were not truly pronounced—we're talking subtleties here. Some listeners will prefer the No.31.5. For those who do not, or who find it a virtual tossup, or who simply can't afford or justify the 31.5's cost, there's a $5500 bonus.
I next took on the No.36S vs the No.36, using the No.37 as a transport. My first reaction was that the 36S had a sense of clarity and resolution—the word focus says it best—that the 36 could not match. The 36S's bass was tighter, its midrange more precise, its top end more open. Once again, the sense of listening into the soundstage was more intense with the newer converter.
And yet...the more closely I compared the two units—listening to a short stretch of music on one and immediately replaying that passage on the other (easy to do with identical interconnects, the remote switching capability of the Rowland preamp, and the fact that both D/A converters are within 0.12dB of each other in output)—the more subtle these differences became. In fact, switching during the flow of the music was a nearly hopeless exercise. But using the repeated-passage technique, I heard the same differences I heard during more normal listening, only to a lesser degree. This should really have come as no surprise. The No.36 is an excellent D/A converter, and marginal improvements to its quality come at a high cost—the classic law of diminishing returns. Nevertheless, I did prefer the No.36S.
This raises the never-ending question: Is an incremental performance upgrade worth the 40% increase in price? That depends. If I was buying from scratch and could afford the No.36S, I'd go for it. If I could manage the No.36 but found the No.36S a real stretch financially, I'd buy the No.36 and either plan on a future upgrade—or not look back. If buying the No.36S meant cheapening out on the transport, I'd go with the No.36 instead. But in any case, I would not make a decision until I could compare the two units—something you should be able to do at any Mark Levinson dealer worthy of its floor space. Some of you will fall in love with the No.36S on the spot. Others will find the No.36 just fine, thank you, and feel that the extra money would be better spent elsewhere.